Playing on fears, DePazzo exploits stereotype of poor

September 06, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In his clumsiness and his crudity, Louis L. DePazzo stumbles into something he can use. Keep those poor people out of Dundalk and Essex, he says, winking toward an electorate that knows he's talking about blacks. Teach those people how to take baths, he says. Teach them not to steal before you send them out here. He thus teaches all of us painful lessons in modern exploitation.

The feds want to move 285 inner-city residents to new neighborhoods around the metro area and DePazzo, the Eastside state delegate who wishes to become a Baltimore County councilman, warns his constituents they're all headed to Dundalk and Essex.

The residents are upset, and have a right to be. They feel threatened. They've read about the poor, who no longer resemble the characters in old Frank Capra movies, wanting only a fair shot to prove their inherent nobility, and they do not desire these inner-city folks as new neighbors.

The modern poor we hold guilty: Of many things, but mostly of willing their own poverty, of luxuriating in welfare, of leading dangerous lives. Does this mean all poor people fit such description? Well, no, DePazzo explains, but certainly the ones headed toward Dundalk and Essex will fit that bill.

"If I were mayor of Baltimore City," he says in a burst of public cynicism rare for politicians, "believe me, I would be derelict in my duty if I did not send out the worst of the worst."

He makes this stunning statement last week, in a confrontation with City Councilman Tony Ambridge. Ambridge is furious, because remarks made by DePazzo have somehow been attributed to him on a local radio station, WWIN (95.9 FM).

"I've had irate people calling me and accusing me of racism," Ambridge says at his City Hall office. "I tell them the truth: This is hate-mongering, and it's very divisive. If you're a leader, you should inform and coalesce, and not incinerate and misinform.

"DePazzo's appealing to people's worst senses. People don't like change. They hear the rhetoric, they fear dirty, crime-ridden people coming into their community, and they're taught a mentality of them against us."

The two men, who have known each other for years, met on the airwaves at WWIN last week. Most of the station's listeners are black. On the air, DePazzo said he'd been misquoted about the poor needing baths, about needing to be taught not to steal. But his explanation went nowhere. He said he'd only meant he was "concerned" that "people would need to be taught to take baths and not to steal."

Off the air, Ambridge told him, "We were all greasy Greeks and dirty Guineas once, remember, Lou? Just because you're poor doesn't mean you're dirty and a thief."

Poor DePazzo: He wasn't smart enough, like Roger Hayden, to speak in code. Hayden, the Baltimore County executive who's known for months about the so-called Move to Opportunity program, designed to disperse poor people to areas with better housing, schools and job opportunities, waited until two weeks before primary election day to express public misgivings.

Like DePazzo, he did his own winking toward the electorate, but did it diplomatically. He merely asked Washington to delay the program, citing "a lack of public information and absence of citizen input."

Two Democrats hoping to unseat Hayden -- Charles Dutch Ruppersberger III and Melvin Mintz -- each criticized Hayden for his timing. But neither particularly criticized his message.

Thus, in the year 1994, the old games continue to be played. No one wants the poor around, particularly the black poor. Everyone says the city of Baltimore, the great economic and cultural engine of Maryland, must be rescued from the burden of See carrying too many welfare types (and too many of them black) for the health of the entire state.

But, just don't send them our way, all add under their breath. Lou DePazzo understands this. In the grim shadows of the post-civil rights era, the black poor have become our modern lepers. It's easy to understand those people in Dundalk and Essex: There is a lot of crime committed by poor blacks.

DePazzo's crime is this: He brings back the language of yesterday. Instead of reason, he plucks at our fears. He brings stereotyping back into season. And his timing couldn't be more calculated.

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